Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Tempest"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi


"The Tempest"

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Lisa Wolpe

For those who have attended the few performances of Boston University's THE TEMPEST (already departed), they may remember it as the show with one Caliban, two Prosperos, three Ariels and – 'tis the season – many bods a-leaping. Coming so soon after Northeastern University's TEMPEST, BU's production invites comparisons and comes up short – not to mention any comparison with CSC's mixed-bag production of yesteryear. "But it's a COLLEGE production; what do you expect?" some will ask. Yes, this TEMPEST is a college production – but aren't such productions a training ground for tomorrow's artists and would (and should) welcome criticism? Having recently seen and enjoyed three good to excellent Shakespeare productions at Tufts, MIT and NU, I cannot spare the rod on BU too much. And I've come to believe that regardless of the quality of the acting, Shakespeare rises or falls on his director; in this case, Lisa Wolpe of the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company and, at BU, he plummets.

"But a college theatre department is not a repertory company; no doubt Ms. Wolpe had to make do with the students at hand," some will protest. Well, yes and no. Two years ago, a crack director had three nights to put together a staged reading of one of my own plays, using pre-assigned actors – half of them VERY miscast – and he worked enough miracles to keep this playwright happy. And Anthony Cornish, in his Tuft production of ROMEO AND JULIET, guided his students along with a sure and steady hand, making even the smallest bit player look, move and sound like a Bard professional – with a nod to Caliban, I'd people the world with Cornishes if I could! Whenever someone takes up the director's mantle, it means that whatever the audience sees on the stage – good, bad, or indifferent – bears said director's stamp of approval (or resignation) and thus he or she must take the tomatoes as well as the laurels.

I have seen Ms. Wolpe perform onstage only once and found her to be a cold and bullying actress, and I was not surprised that as director she concentrated on the anger and vengeance side of THE TEMPEST, giving short shrift to its themes of love and redemption – and (indirectly?) to prove that women in male roles can be just as loud and ballsy as men can be; in some cases here, even more so. The production started badly: a tacked-on mystical speech about the planet Jupiter segued into the Storm Scene – and, as is often the case, the actors were forced to scream over the sound effects (can this tricky scene be pulled off with actors evoking the storm by their voices alone?). Things grew worse – Prospero #1 and Miranda engaged in a Strindbergian shouting match in their long first scene together, and a not-so-dainty Ariel #3 (female) added to the brass by demanding – not pleading or cajoling for – his/her freedom, causing Prospero #1 to double up his volume. The (female) Caliban soon entered to foam and curse, but Father and Child had already stolen his/her thunder, with Miranda turning her bile on Caliban regarding her attempted rape by him/her, etc., etc., ETC.! – by then my ears had grown weary, and the production was not yet half an hour old. And all of this Ms. Wolpe allowed, and in this, a Romance.

Things improved with the entrance of Alonso and his court: for starters, the characters are "smaller" and have little reason to declaim, and it was a relief to listen to Robyn LeVine as a subtle, owlish Gonzalo (a most loveable character as performed here; one could see why both Prosperos harbored fond memories of him), and Benjamin Sands (Antonio) and Rod Jerome Brady (Sebastian) as a sly – though bitchy – pair of villains. And, thankfully, the laughs started to come when Shakespeare sent in the clowns: Baron Vaughn's wiry (and wired) Trinculo and Chinasa Ogbuagu's richly played, over-the-top Stephano (though I would have welcomed more drunken variety in the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban trio instead of all three flopping about like goldfish on a rug). Borrowing a page from NU's TEMPEST (?), Ms. Wolpe had the supporting cast hop and jump all over the stage as spirits/denizens of the isle; among them, Mehera Blum (doubling as Adrian and Iris) had an adorable chimpanzee strut.

Miranda.

Caliban.

Ariel.

Three Fabulous Creatures so crucial to the play and so tricky to pull off.

Of the three, Lauren Hatcher's Caliban came off the best – though no match for NU's unforgettable Saheem Ali with his simian walk and menacing yet majestic voice. As costumed and performed, Ms. Hatcher's Caliban was CATS' Grizabella on a Bad Fur Day – but she had a lovely moment with her "isle is full of noises" speech where her face relaxed and her voice softened, and for an instant I gazed upon a hearty, attractive actress hard pressed in playing a Grotesque. The image lasted for the length of her speech, but it made me want to see what Ms. Hatcher can do with other roles – and with other directors. And may she have doled out her wails, curses and screams more carefully during the run, else she'll have had to mime her Moon-Calf by Closing Night.

Why were there three Ariels (one man, two women), other than to give work to two extra bodies? And costumed in tights and doing aerobics all over the stage? And not blending very well, either, as three parts of a whole? NU's David Blais was as muscular as BU's Ariel #1 (male), but Mr. Blais' Ariel was a white flame and gave no suggestion of flesh. Not so here: with every stretching, twisting motion or whenever an Ariel leapt and landed with a THUMP!, I thought not of wind and air but of sinews and sweat – and did not believe these were spirits for a moment; instead, three cheery, athletic Calibans at best. My baseball cap's off to all three Ariels for keeping good breath control for his/her lines after jumping through the many (invisible) hoops that Ms. Wolpe and her choreographer put each one through.

In my first review ever written for this web site – for CSC's TWELFTH NIGHT – I begged Shakespearean directors to "Read! Listen to music! Study paintings (of Shakespeare's productions or otherwise) to be inspired - fill yourself with images to direct your visions by. But they must be Shakespearean visions - no matter how modern!" Look at paintings and book illustrations of Miranda – she is the traditional maiden of Romance; more a symbol of sheltered innocence than a person and should be played as such. Accept Miranda at face value and leave Realism out of the picture; she may have spent her entire life on a deserted island, but that doesn't mean she's a Wild Child, a banshee or a SURVIVOR starlet – she's a fairy tale Princess, one that the Prince immediately falls in love with (the Miranda-Ferdinand angle, though necessary to the plot, is quite conventional and is not dwelt on by the Bard in depth). But I have yet to witness such a Miranda in Beantown: CSC's Miranda was Princess Tiger Lily on leave from PETER PAN; NU gave us a Lolita in search of Humbert. And now BU's tall, horsy Calamity Jane joins the roster – and what a calamity! As mentioned above, the actress immediately locked horns with Prospero #1, her voice shaking with anger, and throughout the evening she continued to blast away at Miranda's sense of wide-eyed wonder – until her "brave new world" speech where, her eyes quite wide indeed, she took up the torch passed to her by NU's Miranda and siddled among the men, looking them over – and she, too, picked out her Uncle Antonio! If these Mirandas hint of future ones to come, I'd rather see a boy player of old play the part: he would, no doubt, concentrate on convincing us he is a sweet, demure maiden rather than Messalina on her way to a Board Meeting.

Two actors play Propsero the Magician/Pupper Master/Director and Stage Manager of the Plot: Andrew Guyton Sneed (Act I) and Brandon Murphy (Act II), and, again, I ask: why two for one? To show different sides of Prospero's personality? The cold and vengeful (Mr. Sneed) versus the resigned and world-weary (Mr. Murphy)? Could not Ms. Wolpe have brought out both sides in one actor; warmed up one or backboned the other? (I hope this kind of role splitting does not become a trend: can you picture a dozen Hamlets dueling with Laertes, and twelve cups of poison being poured down Claudius' throat?) If I had to choose between these Prosperos, I would give the nod to Mr. Murphy, for Mr. Sneed was allowed/directed to bellow and stamp his way through the part in a most unsympathetic manner (he became the tyrant that Caliban constantly paints), which is too bad, because, ironically, Mr. Sneed has a good speaking voice with plenty of lung power, but he redeemed himself (a bit) as the Boatswain at play's end; he would also have made an excellent Antonio or Sebastian. Mr. Murphy's Prospero – bearded and shaggy – was warm, vulnerable and aged beyond his years, but what was the matter with Mr. Murphy's voice? Did shouting his lines in the Storm Scene or doing the strenuous vocal warm-ups that I heard before the little house opened shred his cords, or was he fighting off a muffling cold? Whatever the reason, Mr. Murphy gave us only a husk of a voice, devoid of color, but he shrewdly husbanded and shaped his lines and once my ears adjusted to his sound, I found him touching to listen to as well as to watch: considering the steely groundwork Mr. Sneed had set down before him, Mr. Murphy made Prospero's transition from vengeance to forgiveness creditable, adding a touch of fading summer in his Farewell to the audience. But I wonder what must Mr. Murphy sound like in full throttle?

A side note: none of the three TEMPESTs that I have seen this past year and a half paid heed to a major facet of the play: a sense of a class system, for what revolution lies beneath the pretty verse! Everyone who steps foot on this island, be he King, Prince, Duke or Butler, must start out very much in his station (and each actor must reflect it in his bearing and placement on the stage); and then through said isle, alcohol or magic is each character turned topsy-turvy –Alonso the King loses his son Ferdinand and must sleep in the sand; Stephano the Butler rises above his station to become King of a two-subject empire; the wildness of the place and the loss of Ferdinand tempt the villains to claim Alonso's throne – and only by leveling each character, making them all brothers (both man and monster), does each gain both forgiveness and enlightenment. But a good Shakespearean director who has done his/her homework would know that and draw it out of the actors. So far – in Boston, anyway – it hasn't happened.

Throw me tomatoes, and I'll make spaghetti sauce.

"The Tempest" (6 - 9 December 2001)
BOSTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS
Studio 104, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 353-3349

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